STEVENAGE offers something like safety-net housing for people who can’t afford Hertfordshire’s plusher towns and villages. Huge new estates are now zoned west of the A1 and in the north-east of town. It isn’t attractive, but the prices are low by comparison and the train service is excellent. The station is served not only by the Cambridge and Peterborough commuter services but also by the High Speed trains on the East Coast mainline into Kings Cross, and Moorgate trains on the Cuffley route. The New Town developments, colour-coded on old maps, have streets fancifully named after famous explorers, cathedrals, inventors, cricketers and so on, but in reality they offer little more than the uniformity of the three-bedroom mid- and end-of-terrace. Most are designed according to the Radburn principle, which means that motorists and pedestrians are kept well apart.
The beauty of the large modern shopping centre is that it is genuinely traffic-free. The various neighbourhoods, including the industrial area, are joined to each other, and to the centre, by cycleway, a cleverly designed miniature road network which at peak periods takes up to 1,100 people per hour on their way to and from school or work. The shopping centre offers excellent choice, with all the major chain stores as well as a large range of retail warehouses, such as B&Q and Homebase, and the Forum shopping centre. Massive town centre re-development is in the pipeline and the area is one of those zoned for growth by the Government. At Poplars, where there is a Sainsbury’s superstore, starter homes can be bought for £130,000. The covered market under the town centre multi-storey car park is open Wednesday to Saturday, and the stalls for the outdoor market go up on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Stevenage is very strong on computers and technology, both in the businesses it attracts to its huge industrial parks – including GlaxoSmithKline – and in its educational facilities. North Herts College opened in 2003 with spanking new science laboratories and the Gordon Craig Theatre. Leisure facilities are lavish, too, with a huge leisure centre-cum-theatre and exhibition hall. There are three 18-hole golf courses – a municipal one in Stevenage itself, and one each at Knebworth and Graveley. The place for Sunday walks is Fairlands Valley Park, where there is a sailing and fishing lake, a boating lake and a bandstand for open-air concerts.
The Old Town, ‘Hilton’ in E.M.Forster’s Howards End, is greatly cherished, and property prices are proportionately higher. A two-bedroom cottage would cost around £180,000; a three-bedroom cottage more than £200,000. On Stevenage’s margins are some sedate, tree-lined roads that attract the middle-class professionals – Rectory Lane and Granby Road, for example, where a detached house with four or five bedrooms and a large garden may cost upwards of £350,000.
There is also a leap in house prices between the New Town and the villages that surround it. Benington in the east, for example, has a picture-postcard village green and timbered cottages, and is very sought after – though it does also have its share of new developments and local authority housing. An older house with four bedrooms would take you into the £400,000 range.
Walkern is much busier, with a main street that takes quite a lot of traffic. Estates have sprung up around the old dovecote and pond, and by the chequer-brick Manor Farm. A two-bedroom period cottage will cost around £200,000.
Aston is also popular and much closer to Stevenage, though it is a little hemmed in by Stevenage and has had its own struggle to restrict development – the field in the village centre (with cricket pitch and pavilion) has been fiercely defended. Most of the new housing is kept to small developments in cul-de-sacs. A large four-bedroom detached would cost £450,000.